Let’s jump to the conclusion first. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian superhero film, is spectacular, epic, and probably the most soulful one in the franchise. With its great ensemble delivering outstanding performances, Hawaii-raised director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12” and “Just Mercy”) lets the new-introduced superhero enter the franchise in its own way.
We first meet our hero as a young man named Shaun (played by Simu Liu), who works as a doorman in a high-class hotel in San Francisco with his bestie Katy (played by Awkwafina. Electrically funny and charming as always). His regular life changes when a group of mysterious killers attacks him on a bus. It’s an astonishing action scene that not only reveals the killer instinct hiding inside him, but also gives Liu, who used to be a stuntman on the set, a breakthrough moment, turning him into a movie star.
We later learn that Shaun (or his true name Shang-Chi) is in fact the son of Wenwu (played by the Hong Kong legend Tony Leung), a brutal Chinese warlord, who eager to reunite with his family, including his beloved wife (played by Fala Chen) and Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang). However, his plan is about to release a soul-sucking monster that will destroy the world. Trained by his warrior aunt (played by Michelle Yeoh) in order to stop his father, Shang-Chi, at the same time, must learn his real power and his place in the world.
Both Shang-Chi and Wenwu are suffered from their trauma and are haunted by the loss of the family, bringing up the core value shared among Chinese families. Just like Katy’s grandma told her at the beginning of the film: “Moving on is an American idea” indicates the fundamental difference between the Chinese perspective of life and death and the Western: the Chinese believe that the goners will live inside ourselves and give us the power to fight for our loved ones.
Besides the star-making performance from Liu, all the female characters are very well written. However, the true power of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” comes from Wenwu. As one of the most gifted actors in history, Leung is the entire MCU’s most brilliant casting choice. Here playing Marvel’s most controversial villain, he conquers nations while struggling with grief. His expression, especially eyes, has magic that dominates every scene. Even his silence is full of passion. It’s one of the best performances from the MCU franchise.
Like black people finally saw themselves in “Black Panther,” Asians now can see their legacy and identity in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Mixing several classic wuxia and Kung-Fu elements with modern action choreography, director Cretton lets the cultural specificity flows under the surface of the entire film. Most important, it corrects the Marvel’s racist past by rewriting the “Yellow Peril” character Mandarin into Wenwu. Over the past year, Sinophobia and anti-Asian violence surge dramatically in our broken world. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and the representation of Asian characters hopefully can be seen as a timely message, fighting back against discrimination.
So, can the triumph of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” make history like “Black Panther” did? Though the film has vision and fruitful pictures, it’s still hard to tell for now. Nonetheless, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the film was an “interesting experiment,” Liu responded on Twitter: “We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise.” And just like Shang-Chi tries to teach Katy how to pronounce his name correctly, 50 years after Shang-Chi made his debut on the Marvel comic, it’s a lesson for Hollywood on how to do the Asian stories right this time.
- Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
- Production: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios, and Fox Studios Australia
- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Writer: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham
- Producer: Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz
- Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Awkwafina, Ben Kingsley, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, and Wah Yuen
- “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” releases in theaters September 3
Read the review in Chinese